Here’s something that has amused me this bowl season: which conferences have the best records.
You’d assume it would be the SEC or the Big 10 because you watch college football all year long, you’ve followed it for many years and you can see week in and week out those leagues have the most good teams with the most great players.
You’d be wrong.
The Big East, followed by the Western Athletic and the Mountain West conferences have the best bowl records, well above .500, while the SEC, Big 10, ACC and Pac 10 are right around break even. The poor Big 12 continues to embarrass itself in non-conference competition and finished well below the others.
Does this mean the Big East is every bit the equal of the “Big Boy” conferences and that the WAC and MWC deserve Bowl Championship Series automatic berths?
Of course it doesn’t. The Big East yahoos and the college football playoff zealots will tell you that it does, but it doesn’t.
Conference bowl records are highly overrated as a measuring stick for the conferences. Conference bowl records mean no more, and actually a little less, than every other non-conference game played during the course of the season when it comes to saying who has the best conference.
Bowl games mean very little to the bigger question of which conference is best because bowl games are a tiny abstract of a big college football picture and bowl games are unique. Bowl games are all about motivation, match-ups, who’s coaching staff is on its way out and is the team using the trip as a final exclamation point to their current season (like Boise or BYU or Louisville or Hawaii), or merely a springboard to the next season, and finally, and most importantly, bowl games are played on an island. Bowl games are played after a month off and the true measure of a great team is being able to play and beat multiple good teams in a row, on the road, and over the course of the season.
So Boise State beat Oklahoma, that’s great. Now go beat Nebraska this Saturday, Missouri the week after and Texas the week after that. You do that and then I’ll be impressed. As it stands right now, Boise St. beat Oklahoma in what was the biggest game in its program’s history with a month to prepare and no injuries while the Sooners lost what was no more than their fourth biggest game of the year.
The greatest challenge a team like Ohio State or Florida has when it comes to getting to a national championship game is the very thing that teams from the Big East or non-BCS leagues never face: schedule fatigue. Schedule fatigue is Florida’s only loss coming on the road in front of 86,000 fans at Auburn, at night, the week after they played a top-10 LSU team and at the back end of a string of five consecutive games against bowl teams.
No Big East team or WAC team or Mountain West team faces anything like that and for that reason alone – there are others – but for that reason alone, it’s impossible to consider those conferences in the same class as the SEC or the Big 10.
The Big East has just eight members. That means only 7 conference games. Half of those will be against bottom feeders like Connecticut meaning you’re only going to play three or four tough conference games a year. How tough are conference games? Ask USC. Every conference game they played this year except one was a battle. They breezed through a tough out of league schedule against Arkansas and Nebraska and Notre Dame – top teams – but in the Pac 10 they had two loses because conference teams know each other so well.
Toss in a soft non-conference schedule like most Big East teams have and you’ve got several week long soft spots on your schedule during which time you can rest mentally, heal physically and begin to game-plan and load up for the two or three big games you’ll play all year.
In the SEC, for a team like Florida, there is no rest. There is no peeking ahead.
Being a team in the SEC or the Big 10 is like being a talk show host. Everybody has one great talk show in them. Everybody can get on the air one day and be passionate and be funny and tell all their stories and be engaging. How many people can do that five days a week? How many people can do that five days a week for a month or six months or a year or 10 years? Not many. Colin Cowherd hosts a four hour talk show, by himself, five days a week, 50 weeks a year and has done so for three years; how many people can do that?
That’s what playing in a major conference is like. You have to be on each and every week.
Before playing and losing to Louisville, West Virginia in the Big East had a five week stretch of games that looked like this: bye, at Mississippi State, Syracuse, at Connecticut, bye.
Nice. And they still lost.
Any surprise that 12-1 Louisville’s only loss came the week after it played the best team it faced, West Virginia? Any surprise it came on the road, in a conference game?
The only time Big East champion Louisville had to play consecutive weeks against good teams, it lost the back-end road game. That’s no coincidence. What that is, is life in a major conference. It’s Tennessee having to host Alabama in a huge rivalry game, then play at South Carolina, then come home to host a top-10, physical, LSU team, then go on the road and face another physical, top-12 team, Arkansas team – in consecutive weeks.
That is what makes the SEC, followed by the Big 10, the best and toughest conferences in college football, the grind.
Mountain West champion BYU – good team – it’s only two losses came at Arizona and at Boston College. Road games at major conference schools, it’s tough. Those games should count every bit as much as the Cougars’ bowl win over Oregon toward determining how good the MWC is.
Out of conference records and bowl results aren’t the only way to determine the best conference.
How about atmosphere, stadium size, rivalry games and how tough it is to play on the road.
The most opposing fans Boise State played in front of all year was 45,000 at Utah. That’s half a stadium at Florida. The most hostile fans Louisville played in front of: 45,000 at Rutgers.
Try playing against 80,000 plus like they do every week in the SEC and Big 10 when 18-year-olds get frazzled and communication is strained.
Rivalry games make a conference great and a schedule difficult to get through. The Big East has one rivalry game in its entire conference: Pittsburgh and West Virginia. Just one legitimate hate fest in the whole league. Georgia has four every year if you don’t count South Carolina and many people do. Ask USC who got beaten by a far inferior UCLA team what can happen in rivalry games.
How many players a conference puts in the NFL is another way to tell who is the best. Last year, all eight Big East teams totaled 11 draft picks in seven rounds. The ACC had 11 in the first round. You tell me who is better. More big, fast, talented athletes makes a conference better. It makes the games more physical and injuries more likely to mount. Louisville’s best player, running back Michael Bush, broke his leg against Kentucky; Louisville’s second best player, quarterback Brian Brohm, broke his thumb against Miami. What does that tell you? When the athletes are bigger and faster like they are in the SEC and ACC where Kentucky and Miami play, even when you beat those teams, the cost is high and the cumulative effect of that over a 12 game season is severe.
The other reason no one wants to admit about why these inferior conference teams are racking up such good bowl records is that their bowl tie-ins are garbage because their conferences are so weak. If you were a top flight bowl and had the chance to lock up an agreement with an SEC team or a WAC team, which would you chose?
The bowl people know WAC and Big East teams don’t travel fans or bring the same excitement to their games that Big 10 or SEC teams bring so they avoid teams from those conferences if they can. It’s only the bottom feeder bowls that have no choice, but to take Mountain West or Big East teams that end up choosing them, and when they choose them, they’re generally matched with an also-ran major conference team.
The MWC champ BYU played the 5th place Pac-10 team in the Vegas Bowl and beat them; what does that prove about the relative merits of those two conferences? That the Mountain West champ can beat the 5th place Pac-10 team, so what?
The Big East is a joke football conference and its bowl tie-ins are a joke. It’s 3rd place team, Rutgers, played the 7th place Big 12 team in the Texas Bowl and won, again, so what?
The SEC and Big 12 and Big 10 and ACC teams have bowl agreements that pit their top teams against other top conferences’ top teams, their bowl records shouldn’t be as good as the Big East’s or WAC’s. The SEC had two teams in BCS games this season which means another of its lesser teams gets into a bowl and everyone else goes to a bowl one notch higher than the one they normally would belong in.
I take nothing away from what the Big East and the WAC and the Mountain West have done this bowl season, but when you start looking at just four or five games and point to that tiny sampling for proof of the power of an entire league, you’re lying to yourself.